Thursday, July 05, 2018

a piece at The Atlantic proposing that there are things classical musicians and composers can learn from Kanye West

The conversation around Kanye West lately has focused on politics, stunts, and the phrase scoopity-poop. It can be easy to forget that it was his musicianship, not provocations, that built up enough goodwill for him to go on a five-week spree of releasing one album a week (at least one of which, apparently, was put out in unfinished, soon-to-be-revised form).
Some of those albums—Nas’s Nasir and Teyana Taylor’s KTSE, both produced by West—feature string arrangements and vocals by the Yale-trained composer and pop artist Stephen “Johan ” Feigenbaum. He had, in a way, gotten West’s attention by drawing attention away from the noise around West and back to his music. Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.

“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
The day after the Aspen show, I spoke with Cohler and Feigenbaum about how Kanye draws from the classical, and how classical composers might draw from Kanye. This interview has been edited.
Kornhaber: Some people might be leery of using classical terms to describe pop, as it might be seen as a confirming the thought that one is a higher art form than the other. Do you worry about that?

Feigenbaum: Well, since entering the pop-music world, the judgments I would have made when I was in classical music about pop, I increasingly understand why they would have been irrelevant. And it’s made me appreciate that most classical music isn’t about the technical shit either. Pop includes a lot of what is called “extra-musical information.” The lyrics, that’s not music, that’s words representing outside ideas. The artwork, the music videos—all this stuff that’s not the music, but that is used to create the product. But it turns out that’s true in classical music. There’s no Mahler No. 9 without knowing his daughter died.
Kornhaber: What did you think of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer?

Cohler: It’s inevitable. And probably a good thing. My Facebook news feed is full of instrumental orchestral musicians, and there are a lot of rage posts.

Feigenbaum: The fact that for almost every year the Pulitzer went to some contemporary classical composer was an important data point in the argument that classical music still matters. The door is open now. There’s not going to be classical composers winning in a decade. Which is fine, in my opinion. If the Pulitzers are supposed to be an honor for the music that’s most relevant to our cultural conversation, Kendrick’s a way better answer to that. In classical music, people should think about why we’re not working harder to impact the national cultural conversation.

Kornhaber: That’s pretty tough on classical music.

Feigenbaum: Oh yeah. Part of why I’m doing pop music is because I want to reinvigorate classical. There’s a lack of realism in classical about how much it matters. The more that illusion is broken, the better.

Kornhaber: At the same time, part of your argument is that Kanye is classical. Could the Pulitzers be saying the same about Kendrick?

Feigenbaum: We’re not saying Kanye is classical, we’re just saying he’s doing what classical composers should be doing. At least for me it’s that. [emphasis added]

Cohler: Yeah this came up yesterday: What does the term classical mean?

Kornhaber: And you had a really expansive view, Yuga, saying you don’t think there’s any real need to draw a distinction between genres.

Cohler: When it gets to the actual terminology, it’s difficult. Clearly there’s this notion that certain types of music are meant to be appreciated in a deeper way or over a longer term than other types of music. The Pulitzer is intending to be the “deeper” music, whatever you want to call it. Giving it to Kendrick is saying [he’s that].

Feigenbaum: All the composers that studied at Juilliard and Yale and so forth, maybe they’ll start writing music like Kendrick.

Kornhaber: But then does it become pop? Do they have to start using verses choruses?
Cohler: I have a theory. Obviously genres are blending, even on the level of Taylor Swift going from country to pop. If that’s true, and audiences are coming to expect that, it’s easy to extrapolate that classical and pop can blend in some way. Maybe you’ll have pop songs that are in crazy meters and have weirder harmonies and stuff like that.
Feigenbaum: I see it going one direction. Classical musicians are going to listen to more stuff like Damn. I don’t think there’s any evidence that what we would call classical music infiltrating the mainstream in any way. I don’t see like suddenly the new David Lang piece is going to be taking the indie-music community by storm.
Kornhaber: But you’re kind of arguing that’s what’s happened with Kanye, aren’t you? And you see it with him working with Caroline Shaw, or even with you.
Cohler: Caroline Shaw is a great example.
Feigenbaum: Yeah, there’s one. She’s exactly what classical music should be. My view of it is that if Kanye were do do an opera tomorrow, we’d all be talking about it and that would mean a lot for the future of opera. The best way for me to do it is to get a Kanye to use their platform.
What has been interesting is that while there has been an assumption that a Kendrick Lamar win is good for the prize and that anyone who might object to Lamar winning the prize must be racist or on the political right neither of this has to be true.  John Halle's blogging comes to mind.

One of the oddities of the campaign was persistently encountering the view within the agenda setting media that what was really motivating us was something very different. Rather than a positive affirmation of Sanders’ program the votes of Berniebros, as we were derisively referred to, were purely negative, motivated by sexism against the front runner and racism directed against many of her supporters.


A farcical recapitulation of this recent history can be seen in a column by a member in good standing of the elite media class, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg. The ostensible subject involves a few composers objecting to the Pulitzer prize for music having been awarded to rapper Kendrick Lamar. These provided the opportunity for Rosenberg and a former Yale classmate (1) to engage in frenzied, ritualistic savaging of what might be called composer-bros, “white people from privileged backgrounds” whose veritable essence is assumed to deprive them of the capacity “to wrap their heads around Kendrick [Lamar].” Lamar is, according to them, “dealing with topics they don’t necessarily want to look at, in a way that’s simultaneously unflinchingly direct and also very complex and layered.”

“They” in the previous sentence is taken to indicate those excluded from the woke multiculturalist circles inhabited by Rosenberg and her interlocutor who somehow survive the extreme violence of their self-administered pats on the back on display here.

Returning to the planet earth, it is not only members of this post Yale social club who are able to appreciate the virtues of Kendrick Lamar. In fact, many of the composers they are condescending to insist on Lamar’s musical brilliance and cultural significance albeit while expressing reservations about the Pulitzer board’s decision. (2) That there is absolutely no contradiction is a matter of elementary logic: as anyone who has made a hiring decision knows, the question of whether X is highly skilled at or even brilliantly qualified for Y is entirely independent of whether X is an appropriate choice for Y.

Furthermore, even if it were the case that certain composers actively dislike Lamar’s music and have cast aspersions on his musical competence their doing so would say precisely nothing about their underlying attitudes. To take one obvious example, the manufacturer of legendary Republican hit pieces Lee Atwater had a profound affinity for African American music and musicians, sympathies which easily co-existed with his promoting a dogwhistled racist agenda. To infer substantive political content or commitments from affective aesthetic preferences is a fool’s errand.

That Rosenberg has little interest in examining these ambiguities is apparent as was her studied avoidance during the campaign of the reasons why Sanders voters rejected her preferred candidate, Mrs. Clinton. And just as Rosenberg played a role in creating the myth of the sexist Bernie bros, who, she claimed (were) ”aggressive(ly) adopting language and stances . . . tinged by gender” it should come as no surprise that she is attempting to imbue composer bros with similarly reactionary impulses.


Halle articulated an argument that the Pulitzer prize in music should be focused on music in what Richard Taruskin has called the "literate musical tradition", music that can be performed from a printed score.


Classical composition, which I will refer to here as composition, is not a style but a medium: a means for conveying musical ideas, emotions, and information. As such, it is distinct from all other musical media—whether these are elevated, debased, trivial, or distinguished—which do not transmit and convey their ideas through the means of composition, i.e. as notes on a page. It follows then that the real question about the appropriateness of the Pulitzer guidelines mandating “distinguished composition” arises not with the qualifying adjective. Most of us would be happy to accept that much mainstream music is indeed “distinguished.” The problem is with the noun “composition.” For it is a fact, albeit one that non-professionals often find surprising, that the overwhelming majority of music which is produced, broadcast, recorded, downloaded and listened to, does not exist in the form of a “composition”, i.e. as printed music on the page, and it has been many years since it has. Long forgotten are the days when, as Charles Rosen relates, Proust’s mother would receive in the mail and bring to life the newest Beethoven Sonata for the assembled family and guests on the living room piano. Also long in the past is the time when popular songs would circulate primarily through sheet music. Instead of having to master the 88 keys of the piano, those wanting to bring music into their homes need only to master the smaller number of controllers on a CD player panel or the keystrokes necessary to access the Internet sites Kazaa or iTunes.

And just as musical literacy is no longer necessary to play music, literacy has also long since ceased to be necessary to compose it. No genuinely popular songwriter of the present produces fully or generally even partially notated scores as did Rodgers, Kern, or Gershwin. As recordings have become the final form in which music is encountered a very different process now mediates how a musical idea finds its way from conception to realization. The process is one which more closely resembles filmmaking than traditional composition in that the final product is assembled from the creative contributions of a range of participants, from band members “laying down tracks” to the studio engineer’s decisions on mike placement or audio effects, to the producer’s decision to add or subtract (i.e. to punch in and out) previously recorded material to the audio “mix.” More recently, sequencing software has meant music existing as data inputted onto MIDI tracks channeled to samplers or synthesizers, sometimes augmented by “live” instruments or vocal tracks. While the latter represents something closer to the authorial control assumed in literate traditions, notes on the page play at most a minimal role in either process.

The medium by which contemporary music tends to be transmitted has radically altered the range of skills expected of musicians to function professionally. While generally highly technically proficient as instrumentalists, fluent improvisers, and often extremely knowledgeable in both the practice and theory of electronic music, most contemporary musicians are usually, in a strict sense of the term musically illiterate, unable to negotiate musical notation except in the most rudimentary way. Only a few read music on the level required to function on a professional level within a symphony orchestra, a Broadway pit, or in a jazz big band. Most would not be able to decipher a score of more than minimal complexity at the piano or can even follow along with one.

I want to stress that by stating this fact, I am not judging the quality of the music which is produced through non-notated means. Clearly, elaborate, comprehensive, and elegant notation is not a guarantee of artistic value—if it were, the Darmstadt school would have long since overtaken J.S. Bach at the pinnacle of compositional achievement. Conversely, the existence of partly or wholly non-notated masterpieces ranging from Motown, to gamelan, to Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians—a work that did not exist as a conventional score until the edition prepared for Boosey & Hawkes in collaboration with composer Marc Mellits—is beyond dispute. There are, in my opinion, certain qualities which are unique to what we might call “literate” music, and I’ll discuss some of these momentarily. But whether or not that is that case, the conclusion that we are witnessing a shift not merely in style but, more fundamentally, a shift in the medium by which music is communicated seems to be unavoidable.

The argument wasn't, isn't, and has never been that any music composed or recorded or conveyed by any other medium is bad music or is somehow not even music.  The argument is that by changing the criteria by which a musical work is considered for the Pulitzer from a published or publishable score that anyone with sufficient traditional musical literacy could take up and play to recording processes that the standard has been changed.  Now there are those who would potentially argue that's great because hip hop is the most popular style around these days and it's about time the Pulitzer awarded a hip hop artist.  The thrust of Halle's argument would be that if hip hop can be published in a form that can be expressed in a written-out score, great, by all means give the award.  But if the hip hop performance is mediated by recording then either we, so to speak, can have a distinguished award for that type of music-making (and why not?) or we pass over the hip hop that has no on-page score in favor of something that does.

The point about Atwater has not, so far as I've managed to see, been addressed by the folks who are happy Lamar won the Pulitzer.  It "is" possible for people to appreciate the music of a culture or a people without treating those people as having the same rights as the aficionado.  If anything that would seem to potentially speak of a thoroughly colonialist rather than progressive mentality depending on how you parsed things. 

So while it's tempting, really tempting, to imagine that any opposition to a Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer prize in music from a John Borstlap or a Norman Lebrecht "must" come from a right-wing or reactionary impulse on the part of self-identified progressive whites or others, it's still possible to argue from a left position that moving the goalposts by changing the criteria by which the Pulitzer prize in music is bestowed changes the nature of the game.  Presenting the Lamar win as unique because he's a person of color by itself doesn't count, since George Walker won the Pulitzer a couple of decades ago for one of his scores.  Thanks to Ethan Iverson's blog I learned about George Walker's five piano sonatas, which are all inspired and wonderfully-made works.  In the year after the centennial of the death of Scott Joplin it would seem that we have plenty of musical works written by African American composers and composers of African lineage that we could discuss. 

Now it's not that I think classical music, for want of a better description, can't benefit from the boundaries between the literate and non-literate musical traditions being regarded as more inherently permeable than post-19th century pedagogy tends to permit.  If there's anything that can be overlooked by those who read Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music and muttered with disappointment that African American music and jazz and rock hardly got mentioned the reason has to do with what published scores are out there.  Taruskin was clear at the start of volume 1 of 5 that he was not even suggesting that music from non-literate traditions was in any way bad and even went so far as to propose at several points in volume 1 that some revolutions in the early/ancient music scene were most likely that people finally got around to conveying in notated on-page form musical styles, idioms and works that had been circulating for possibly generations outside the literate music tradition. 

It's very easy to imagine that popular and esoteric/literate music can be developed into a successful fusion of the two different strands of music.  Charles Rosen explicitly spelled out how this was accomplished in the 18th century by Haydn and Mozart and regarded it as an unusual and possibly never-repeated-since successful fusion of high and low idioms in Western music. 

slight postscript.  I'm not so sure, since I'm not an academic, that the canon is necessarily as big a problem as academics may feel it is.  There's a canon to popular music.  It may be partly mediated by music critics but Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Elvis had to sell records before they could even be considered members of the pop/rock pantheon.  As Charles Rosen put it about Haydn and Mozart they were both popular composers on the way to being canonized in academic literature.  If there's yet another way in which to argue that John Cage embodied the ideology he was putatively against it's in his denigration of popular musical styles and forms. 

In that sense he was on the same side as Adorno, which not so coincidentally is a paradox about John Borstlap--as much as he impugns Adorno with ruining European cultural patronage by advocating for atonality and things that birthed sonic art, Adorno's distrust that anything good could come from popular musical styles, and his emphatic assertion that no attempt to revitalize concert music through the use of popular or vernacular styles like jazz could possibly work, all of this suggests that in spite of formally being against Adorno the philosopher or Marxist-Leninist ideologue, John Borstlap is on the same side as Adorno in regarding jazz as incapable of being employed to bring new life into the concert music literature.  I don't see it or hear it that way.  If anything when I listen to some of the greats of the 18th century like Haydn or Mozart I hear that their willingness to blur the boundaries between high and low is one of the great things about their music, and that's a point that even Adorno could readily grant in Introduction to Sociology of Music.

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